Answers With Joe

6 Inventors Who Were Killed By Their Own Inventions

In the endless march of innovation, you’re going to have some missteps along the way. From balloon accidents to questionable bed apparatuses, here are 6 inventors who were killed by their own inventions.


There’s a vault in Paris at the ________, where inside a lead-lined box you will find a set of notebooks that nobody is allowed to handle without proper protection, because these books could kill you.There’s a vault in Paris at the ________, where inside a lead-lined box you will find a set of notebooks that nobody is allowed to handle without proper protection, because these books could kill you.
Consider for a moment a lead-lined box in the vault of the National Library in Paris. Inside you’ll find a simple set of notebooks.
Only a few people are allowed to handle these books and even they have to wear protective gear and can only handle them for a little bit at a time.

These measures might seem normal, important documents are often subject to extreme measures to keep them safe. The difference here is these rules aren’t in place to protect the documents. It’s to protect the people handling them.
That’s because these notebooks belonged to Marie Curie. Marie Curie was of course the chemist who discovered radium and radioactivity in general while she was at it.
She was seriously one of the most impressive scientists of the modern age, to this day she’s the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different disciplines, Chemistry and Physics.
And yet, there was so much she didn’t know, like the dangers of the radioactivity she discovered.
She handled radium and other radioactive materials with her bare hands, leading her to sadly develop aplastic anemia, and died at the age of 66.
And her notebooks, which she handled right alongside the radioactive materials she was studying, remain dangerously radioactive to this day.
It’s a prime example of someone who got a little too close to their work and paid the ultimate price for it. So today let’s take a look at some other inventors who were killed by their own inventions.

To compile this list, I had to kinda create some ground rules to define what it means exactly to be an inventor. To be honest, starting things off with Marie Curie might be a bit disingenuous because she didn’t invent radium, she discovered it.
But that thing with the notebooks is crazy, right?

So yeah, I cut out people like stuntmen, daredevils, and inventors who were so recklessly overconfident, their end was inevitable.  Franz Reichelt, I’m looking at you. —

Some of these guys were sincerely trying to advance the human race, some were just trying to one-up other people, some… maybe got what they deserved? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Some might say that our first story falls into that category.

#1 Thomas Midgley, Jr

Thomas Midgley, Jr may be the best example of a “looking to make a buck” inventor, and possibly the least sympathetic character in this video. It’s also probably the oddest, most non-sequitor   ending of them all. If you laugh, I won’t judge you.
I’ve talked about Midgley before in my video about the Montreal Protocol, he’s the guy at General Motors who developed leaded gasoline that poisoned the air and chlorofluorocarbons that, you know… put a giant hole in the sky.
Well done, you twat.

In fact, it’s been said that no single human being in history has caused more harm to the environment than Thomas Midgley, Jr.

And you might say that’s not fair because he couldn’t foresee the unintended consequences of these things, but he probably knew at least the leaded gas was a bad idea. Multiple workers died at his chemical plants.

And Midgley himself got lead poisoning so bad he had to take a leave of absence from his job to recover.
So I mean, he knew. But he pushed it anyway. 

In 1940, he was stricken with polio.  The disease progressed to the point that he couldn’t get in and out of bed by himself anymore, so being a clever guy, he designed a harness and pulley system that allowed him that would lift him up and swing him over without needing anybody else’s help.
And just like his other inventions, he was smart enough to create it, but not smart enough to survive it.
One day in 1944, he got twisted up in the harness. One of the ropes got wrapped around his neck and he died of strangulation at the age of 55.

At least… That’s the official story.
There’s an argument he was lucky to die before he knew the damage he’d done.  Considering his reputation and ability to kinda compartmentalize the consequences of his inventions, I’m not quite sure he would have seen it that way.

#2 Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier

Next up is Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier.

And before I get into this one, I would like to extend an apology to the entire country of France for my pronunciation of his name.
de Rozier was a chemist, kinda like Midgley, but 200 years earlier.
He was also a physicist, and a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers, who were early pioneers in balloon flight. You might remember them from my airships video.
In June 1783, de Rozier watched an unpiloted test of a Montgolfier hot air balloon, and he was hooked.  In September of that year, he helped the brothers impress King Louis XVI by sending a sheep, a duck, and a rooster on a balloon flight.
They then all walked into a bar and a hilarious joke ensued.

Anyway, de Rozier quickly escalated his balloon game and started making his own flights.
On November 21, 1783, he became the first person to pilot a hot air balloon without a safety tether.
Other balloonists followed, and a race soon started to see who would be the first to cross the English Channel in a balloon.  
de Rozier didn’t win. It was a fellow Frenchman named Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard who got there first in January 1785.

There is an asterisk on Blanchard’s flight though because he was piloting a hydrogen balloon, which was lighter than a hot air version, and even then, he had to dump all his extra weight to make it across, including his food and his pants.

Pretty awkward celebration at the landing point.
So de Rozier wasn’t the first one across but he thought he could be the first one across with his junk covered so he kept soldiering on.
He still wanted to make it across using hot air because of the buoyancy and control it provides but seeing that hydrogen worked, he developed something of a compromise.
He invented a hybrid balloon, where part of the lift was generated by hydrogen, part by hot air. Warmed with an open flame.  Where could this be going?

Before I get to the inevitable conclusion of this story, I should point out that hybrid balloons are totally a thing, and they’re named after him; they’re called Rozières and they’re kinda awesome.
Rozières fly a lot farther on less fuel, in fact, the first non-stop balloon flight around the world was in a Rozière.  But that happened centuries after this story.
I should also point out that modern Rozières use helium instead of hydrogen…

…And here’s why.

Truth be told, there are conflicting reports as to what exactly happened on Rozier’s final flight. Some say it burst into flames, some say it didn’t but pretty much everybody agrees that it got blown off-course.

Either way, the balloon plunged to the ground, killing Rozier and his co-pilot, who was also his brother.
There’s an artist’s impression of the crash that shows an unburnt balloon.  The artist may have been trying to be kind.  There is one account that suggests that hydrogen leaked out because of a faulty valve. A problem that has apparently never been solved.
However they died, the wreck made Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier’s and his brother the first fatalities in the history of manned aviation.

#3 Harry Smolinski

They were, of course, far from the last. As our next story shows.
Allow me to introduce you to Harry Smolinski, the inventor of the flying Pinto.

The Ford Motor Company introduced the Pinto in 1970.  It was a cheap, subcompact car that some poor souls considered sporty.
Later, it would develop a reputation for exploding after relatively minor impacts.

But in 1973, those problems haven’t quite cropped up yet. So when he had the idea of converting a car into a plane by attaching a wing and engines, the Pinto seemed like the perfect fit.
And to be fair, he was the right guy to do it. He had a degree in aeronautical engineering and worked for nine years at Rocketdyne. So he knew his stuff.
So, he started a company called Advanced Vehicle Engineers, hoping to sell modified Pintos with detachable air-frames for $15,000, the equivalent of 100,000 today.

The idea being, you drive your Pinto around like a normal car but when you want to fly somewhere, just drive to the airport, attach the airframe, and in 30 minutes or so, you’re in the air.

I mean… it’s not the worst flying car idea.

He named his prototype the AVE Mizar, after a double star in the Big Dipper, and it lifted off for the first time on August 26, 1973.
It wasn’t a perfect flight. The right wing started wobbling, so the pilot couldn’t turn. He just flew the car straight and eventually landed in a field.
They worked on the problem and a couple weeks later, the Mizar was ready for another test.  The pilot wasn’t available, so Smolinski decided to fly himself, this time he brought his business partner along, a guy named Hal Blake.

The air traffic controller watched the Pinto take off, but after taking a turn, he said he saw the wing fail. And pretty spectacularly, apparently, he said he saw parts scattering everywhere.
The car took a dive, clipped a tree and slammed into a pickup truck. And exploded.
Any kidding aside, the crash killed Harry Smolinksi and Hal Blake, and with them any hope that the flying Pinto could be a thing. The company folded, and the flying car has remained just out of reach to this day.

#4 Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky

Soviet inventor Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky had a similar idea, but instead of a flying car, he tried to invent a flying train.
1920s Russia was a land of opportunity for young engineers.  The Bolshevik government was eager to modernize the country and show off their technological prowess.
Plus it’s a giant country so they were eager to improve their transportation infrastructure.
Abakovsky worked as a chauffeur when he wasn’t engineering. So maybe he was just chilling in a limo when he first read about a German attempt to create a high-speed locomotive with a

The idea didn’t really go anywhere in Germany because the strict sanctions at the time after World War 1 made it hard to get parts, but Abakovsky realized he’d have no trouble with that in Russia.
So he pitched the idea, got enthusiastic funding from the government for all the reasons I just mentioned, and thus the Aerowagon was born.
It really was like a combination of a plane and a train, and they actually got it up to 140 km/h in tests.

So in July 1921, the Aerowagon set off on its first inaugural trip, and it actually got a huge vote of confidence from the Soviet state because they had several high-ranking party officials on board.
I feel like it’s worth mentioning, Abakovsky was only 24 years old at the time.
They set off on the morning of July 24th with 22 people on board, including Abakovsky and those high ranking officials.
They made their way from Moscow to Tula, a distance of 193 kilometers at an average speed of 40-to-45 km/h, about the same speed the trains go today.
Great success!

It was on the return trip that everything went wrong.  And it happened for the same reason many things went wrong in the Soviet era. The party officials wanted something, and nobody had the power to say no.

Reportedly the VIPs were tired and wanted to get home, so they insisted they go faster. It’s unknown how Abakovsky felt about it, but they doubled the speed to over 80 km/h.
And it was at this speed when the Aerowagon derailed. Six of the 22 passengers died at the scene, including Abakovsky himself.  One man died later.
This would go down as the worst train-plane hybrid accident until Starscream threw Megatron from Astrotrain in the Transformers Movie.

Seriously, it was a devastating blow.  The Russians abandoned aerowagon as a concept until 1970, and no model never left the lab.Now, in Abakovsky’s defense, there are some that think this wasn’t his fault. That in fact, the train was sabotaged.
There was a guy named Artem Fedorovich Sergeev, who was the son of one of the VIPs that died, he claims that the train was intentionally derailed to get rid of some of those high-ranking officials.

He was actually taken in by Joseph Stalin after his father died so he might have had access to information that others wouldn’t.  And it wouldn’t be the first or last time that high-ranking Russian officials, you know, “had an accident.”

#5 Horace Lawson Hunley

Go back another 60 years or so and you get the story of Horace Lawson Hunley, the inventor of the first submarine.
The time was the American Civil War, and the Confederates were being crippled by Union blockades of their ports, which prevented weapons and supplies from reaching the troops.
The situation got so desperate, they began offering bounties on Union warships. A single ship could bring a bounty of 50,000 Confederate dollars, which would be worth a million today, if Confederate dollars were worth anything.

That was enough money to get Hunley to partner with engineer and former steamship captain James McClintock to build a submarine.  
It should be noted that attempts to build a battle sub go all the way back to 1775, but none had yet managed to sink a ship.

Hunley and McClintock thought the time had come.  They built a sub named Pioneer but had to destroy it when the city where they were testing fell to the enemy.
Their second attempt produced a sub that had to be abandoned due to design flaws.
But the third time, they got it right.  Hunley financed this one himself, so it was named for him.  The H.L. Hunley, and it proved to be really good at killing people.  Those people being its crew.

Five sailors died during a test in August 1863, when a sailor stepped on a lever that opened hatches during a dive. Whoops.
Another test on October 15th killed 8 people when they attempted to dive under a ship at anchor and basically angled too steep and got stuck in the mud. All the sailors on board drowned.
One of those eight sailors was Hunley himself.
A little post-script to this story is that they did resurrect the Hunley and put it back into service, this time under the command of Lieutenant George Dixon. And this time, it actually worked.
Early the next year, the H. L. Hunley attacked and sank the Union ship Housatonic, becoming the first submersible to sink an enemy ship. And then promptly sank itself. For a third time.
Ironically, this took place in 25 feet of water so all the Union sailors were able to climb up the rigging and survived. Meanwhile all eight of the Hunley crew drowned.

So yes, technically the Hunley was the first successful military submarine. If by success you mean it killed 21 of your guys and none of the enemy.
By the way, when the Hunley sank, it kinda disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to it until 1995 when the wreck was found off the coast of South Carolina.
It was raised in the year 2000 and today you can go see it at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston. Don’t recommend trying to sail away in it though.

#6 William Bullock

William Bullock was an inventor who created the rotary press for newspaper printing, though you could argue he’s more of an innovator than an inventor. The rotary press was invented a decade beforehand but his improvements were so substantial he tends to get the credit for it.

Before Bullock’s press, paper sheets had to be fed by hand.  Bullock created a way for the press to draw its paper continuously from a large roll.  
He also added mechanisms for cutting and folding paper.

The patent for Bullock’s press was granted in 1863, and this massively improved the speed and efficiency of newspaper printing. In fact, a similar process is still used in printers today.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor for very long. Four years after his patent was granted, he suffered a horrifying accident under his own invention.
Apparently he found a belt that was becoming dislodged from a pulley and tried to kick it back on. The problem is he didn’t turn off the machine first.
He probably thought he could just give it a quick little tap and pop it back on there while it was moving, in fact he’d probably done that dozens of times by that point but this particular time, his foot got caught in the belt and the machine crushed his leg.

Fortunately for him, it didn’t suck his entire body under there – the damage was limited to his leg – unfortunately for him penicillin was 60 years in the future, so the leg became gangrenous.
The doctors amputated his leg, but it was too little too late.  He died ten days later from surgical complications.
In a sad twist, the bank that had financed his press folded after Bullock died.  In the fallout, the bank’s former president ended up owning Bullock’s company.  It continued selling presses, but none of the money went to Mrs Bullock or her children.

For 97 years, William Bullock rested in an unmarked grave at Union Dale Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In 1964, a magazine article raised enough interest to fund a marker and headstone.  One of the attendants of the ceremony was Bullock’s great-grandson.

Worthy Sacrifice?

Bullock’s death wasn’t the most sensational but I saved it for last because it kinda feels the most human, you know? I mean, who hasn’t kicked a machine out of frustration a time or two?

And I’d like to say that all these guys died for a reason, you know, pushing the human race forward and all that but Midgley and Hunley were on the wrong side of history, Smolinski and Abakovsky’s inventions died with them.
de Rozier might be the exception. He helped kick off an industry that’s changed the world, and a version of his invention is still flying today. You can’t help but wonder what else he could have done if he’d survived.

Maybe just finish on a note here about how some of these guys were reckless or foolish but in the end, their mistakes advanced engineering and helped shape the world today.
Going back to the beginning, of course is Marie Curie, who put her body on the line and changed the world in the process. Of course, cue the comments telling me she wasn’t an inventor though.

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